BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Football may always be king around Baton Rouge, but the city is certainly starting to prove it can be a rowdy basketball town again, too.
Johnny Jones' LSU Tigers played two home games against unranked opponents this past week (Ole Miss and Arkansas) yet registered paid crowds of 12,133 and 13,610 for a pair of Tiger victories. The 76-74 thriller over Arkansas on Saturday actually sold more tickets than LSU's 85-67 shellacking of No. 9 and traditional powerhouse Kentucky back on January 5.
LSU is averaging 10,944 fans per game this season, up from 8,897 a year ago. What makes that even more impressive is the majority of the Tigers' SEC home slate is still in front of them, along with a very exciting non-conference matchup against No. 2 Oklahoma. The Tigers have their healthy turnstile average, despite hosting contests against less than stellar names like Kennesaw State, Gardner-Webb and American.
Simply put, the home numbers should only swell from here.
Plenty of credit should go to the LSU students. They have shown up in droves and been boisterous from the opening tip to the final buzzer. Their cheers and jeers have become much more basketball savvy, while their intelligence for the game has also increased drastically. Sorry, some of things yelled from that section in previous years were just...dumb. The students' recent twist (pardon the pun) on Twisted Sister's anti-authority classic "We're Not Gonna Take It" (yelling, "You're not gonna make it! No! You're not gonna make it!") at opposing free throw shooters makes me chuckle.
The LSU team has obviously played its role in re-energizing the fan base. After many speculated the Tigers would start conference play 0-3, here they sit at 4-1. Freshman star Ben Simmons has hardly been a one man show and quite frankly had some brutal moments against Arkansas. Simmons blew a dunk, air-balled a three-point shot and a free throw, while also committing a game-high five turnovers. The young man is obviously a victim of his own incredible talent, as I pointed all of this out despite the fact he racked up another double-double with 16 points and 18 rebounds. Simmons completed two three-point plays in the final 4:32 of the game that were extremely pivotal in the win.
But, New Orleans native and sophomore Craig Victor, along with senior guard and Lake Charles grown Josh Gray, also played their part in a significant way. Victor, obviously, nearly blew the roof off the joint as he rebounded Antonio Blakeney's nothing-but-air three-pointer and put it home for the game-winning hoop with 4.2 seconds left to play. Victor finished with 16 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots, while Gray is displaying the type of confidence that made him a junior college superstar. Driving to the rim with authority and more controlled ball handling, Gray finished with 15 points on 6 of 8 shooting against the Razorbacks. And, while he often makes fans nervous with his questionable decision making, Gray had only one turnover in 30 minutes of action. It's really good to see him playing well after so many previous struggles.
So, there's reason to cheer. After an extremely disappointing early start, LSU has another big NCAA resume building opportunity ahead of them Tuesday night, when the team travel to battle No. 14 Texas A&M. The Tigers then head to Alabama on Saturday, a place where they haven't won since Jan. 31, 2004.
Needless to say, a challenging week lies ahead. And, let's be brutally honest - despite their recent success, no one would be shocked if LSU loses them both. The Tigers still have some work to do before they truly earn our trust. But, somehow if the Tigers win them both and return to Baton Rouge 6-1 in the SEC for their next home game against Georgia on January 26, then they'll certainly be 13,000 enthusiastic fans there again. Because, at the moment, LSU basketball is fun again.
And, "packing the PMAC" isn't just for Kentucky anymore.